Home cinema cables: Do you know your phono from HDMI?

May 2020
home cinema cables

You’ll probably realise when you’re starting to build your first home cinema that there’s plenty of cables involved. But what do they do and what are the typical home cinema cables you need?

 

Don’t worry if you have no idea what phonos, HDMI and Cat5 cables are, as we’ll cover all of them and more.

 

 

SCART cable

 

While not used very often any more, back in the day every VHS, early DVD players and set-up boxes used a SCART cable to connect to the TV. They carried both audio and video.

 

 

HDMI cable

 

The SCART was replaced by HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) which is also used to transmit audio and video between a Blu-ray player and a TV, for example.

 

You’ll also need an HDMI cable for most set-up boxes, streaming sticks (such as Amazon Fire TV and Google Chromecast) and to connect devices to your AV receiver.

 

There are a few versions of HDMI cable available including 4K HDMI cables, which are worth the extra as they will be future-proof.

 

 

Optical cable

 

If you have a soundbar or external speakers, for example, you’d likely use an optical cable to connect it to your TV. It’s purely used to carry digital audio. Unlike the majority of cables, when powered, an optical cable transmits a red light.

 

 

RCA cable

 

Often called phonos, there are a few different types of RCA cables. The most common has two phono connectors at each, one is white and the other is red. This type of RCA is used to transmit audio.

 

For example, if you have an old turntable or cassette player, it likely has two phonos for audio output. You’d use a stereo RCA cable between the device and an amplifier.

 

The other common RCA cable has 3 connectors. As before, we have a stereo pair for audio (white and red) as well as a yellow for composite video. Years ago it was fairly common to use a cable with a SCART connector at one end and 3 phonos at the end.

 

Some games consoles still use 3 RCA connector cables.

 

 

VGA cable

 

Typically used to connect a computer to a projector, a Video Graphics Array (VGA) cable uses a three-row 15-pin DE-15 connector. While many devices still include VGA connectors, they usually also have an HDMI port.

 

 

Category 5 cable

 

Even if you don’t know what it’s called, it’s highly likely you have a few Cat 5 cables at home. They are the spare cable that always comes with a new Wi-Fi router that you’re not quite sure what it’s for. Cat5 cables transmit data and are used for the internet.

 

You can connect your Blu-ray Player, Projector and laptop to the internet using a Cat5 cable as your device will likely have an Ethernet port even if it doesn’t have built-in Wi-Fi.

 

 

3.5mm Mini-jack

 

Usually found on headphones, the mini-jack connector has been used since the beginning of audio! You might use a mini-jack cable to connect a TV or mp3 player to a soundbar. It’s also fairly common to find cables with stereo RCA at one end and a mini-jack at the other.

 

 

6.35mm (1/4 inch) Instrument jack

 

The bigger brother of the 3.5mm mini-jack, if you’ve played an electric guitar then you have used a 1/4 inch jack to jack cable. In a home cinema, you might use a jack to jack cable to connect speakers, sub-woofer and headphones.

 

 

XLR cable

 

Primarily used for professional audio, XRL cables are balanced and so can carry audio over a long length without losing any signal. A lot of subwoofers and some powered speakers have an XLR input. You might use an XLR to XRL cable or a 1/4 Jack to XLR cable.

 

 

Coaxial

 

Used to carry high-frequency electrical signals with low losses, you’d use a coaxial cable to connect a set-up box to a dish or external source or a radio receiver to an antenna.

 

 

Speaker cable

 

A pair of bare cables which connects an amplifier or powered AV receiver and a speaker. Typically, you’d unscrew the connector, feed the speaker wire into the hole and tighten the connector. Some prefer to use banana plugs to make the connection easier to make.

 

 

USB cable

 

You’ve likely seen various USB cables. They can be used to carry power and data or either. Most streaming sticks use an HDMI cable to transfer data and a USB cable for power. Another common use is connecting a smartphone or tablet to a TV using a UBS cable and then broadcasting from the smart device to the larger screen.

 

 

Power cables

 

You won’t get far without power cables! Generally, if no power cable is built-in, most pieces use IEC to 3 pin power cables, which is commonly referred to as a computer power cable.

 

 

Should I use gold plated cables?

Let face it, most cables that are included with devices aren’t very good. They typically use moulded connectors, poor cables and can easily break. So you’ll want to upgrade all but your power cables.

 

It’s worth spending the extra and upgrading to gold-plated cables where possible as they are of a higher quality. They are more durable, conduct better and offer greater shielding.

 

All of these properties result in a stronger signal and less noise. Also, gold-plated ends don’t have the oxidation that may occur in regular cables.

 

 

Does cable length matter?

Contrary to popular opinion, where cables are concerned, length does matter! Ideally, you want to keep cables as short as possible to ensure maximum fidelity and low noise.

 

Thankfully, you can buy most cables in a range of lengths including 1, 3, 5 and 10 metres. Speakers cable is usually sold by the metre.

 

 

Most common home cinema cables

In your home cinema, you’ll likely use a few HDMI cables to connect various media players into an AV receiver. You’ll use another HDMI cable from the AV receiver to the display (TV or projector).

 

You will also use speaker cable between the AV receiver and each speaker. For your powered subwoofer, you’ll use an RCA cable from the AV receiver to the unit.

 

If you plan on using a turntable then you’ll connect that to either an amplifier or AV receiver using a stereo RCA cable. For older game consoles you might use RCA cable with 3 connectors (video and stereo audio).